BEING A BROWNIE AIN'T WHAT IT USED TO BE! 

Last week, while in the loft, putting away the last of the winter house decorations, I came across my Brownie Guide Handbook. It's a good long time since I even picked it up, let alone opened it, and doing so brought back a heap of warm and fuzzy memories of my childhood.

I loved just about everything about being a Brownie. I loved the fun and the learning, the adventures and the challenges, the games and the songs. Call it a strange secret part of me, but I even loved the wearing of a uniform, the parades and the ranking system!  From my name neatly written on the inside cover, to the great big satisfied ticks I'd made next to each of the badges I'd earned, my old handbook told so many tales of the fun I'd had.

And it also told the story of just how much things have changed since I was a little girl in the 1970s. Not least that back in 1976, a 172-page colour paperback book cost just 55p. But economic issues aside, little girls were under a lot less pressure then to conform to any sort of ideal. Or at least to any sort of celebrity-centric ideal. That being said, I'd forgotten just how much advice that handbook gave on maintaining our personal appearance. And there seemed to be a merry poem for most of those subjects. For oral hygiene we were told "Teeth fresh and bright, last thing at night" and advised to keep our teeth as "smooth and shiny as a silver spoon". Our hair, meanwhile, should be like that of a mermaid "as clean as you can …  given plenty of fresh air … kept free from tangles … and arranged to suit you." There were even tips on nailcare, although this amounted to little more than keeping them clean and neat and short enough so that they were easy to maintain, and did not get in the way of all that important being helpful.

The emphasis was on being neat and tidy, and certainly paid no heed either to attractiveness or practicality. Any modern Brownie with their leggings and skorts, sweatshirts and hoodies, would laugh out loud at our get-up. A short (and I mean above the knee type of short) belted brown dress with a bright yellow tie around our neck and worn with a brown bubble hat. It wasn't exactly flattering, either in colour or shape. Until I re-read the handbook I'd forgotten that we were supposed to wear white or fawn socks in summer and fawn or brown tights in winter. To be honest, I'd pretty much forgotten that the colour fawn even existed!

We had a lot to think about when it came to maintaining that uniform, and making sure all our badges appeared in the correct place. And there were quite a few. Interest badges aside (more of that later), there were pack badges, and six badges - I was a Sprite and fortunate enough to be able to use my aunt's old 1950s Sprite badge instead of the contemporary version – journey badges, stars to indicate years' service and eventually for many of us our Seconder and Sixer stripes.

Much attention was also paid to having freshly-polished brown or black shoes and upon the things we had to carry with us at all times - a notebook and pencil, for taking down important instructions and conveying messages, a spare clean handkerchief for tending wounds and 5 pence so that we could use the telephone box should an emergency occur. I don't actually recall any of us every having to use those things except in a practice, but still … it taught us to prepare for all eventualities. 

And that was the thing about Brownies, it taught young girls all manner of useful things. Nowadays there is a lot of emphasis on "sisterhood" which is, of course, important and, indeed, it was a vital, if unspoken, part of even my Brownie life, but there was much more concentration on duty. And on the Queen. And on God. I seem to recall, a couple of years ago, there being some debate about whether modern Brownies should be required to make a promise to God at all. It's a valid point, but since our pack was attached to our local church and almost all of us attended the Sunday School, as well as participating in the monthly Church Parade, it wasn't really an issue. And in those days every child had to begin each school day by reciting the Lord's Prayer, whether they were Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu or Atheist. 

The Promise we had to make on the day we became Brownies, and repeated during every meeting accompanied by our earnest little three-fingered salutes, even mentioned both God and the Queen.

"'I promise that I will do my best, to do my duty to God, to serve the Queen and help other people and to keep the Brownie Guide Law"

And, although the wording now has more to do with loving than being dutiful, and a Brownie's own country is on equal footing with her monarch, it's still essentially the same vow. Looking back at my old handbook, I was somewhat delighted at my charming seven-year-old self for signing my name beneath the Promise printed there.

The Law told us; "A Brownie Guide thinks of others before herself and does a Good Turn every day." I'd like to think I still follow that as enthusiastically as I did back then, but suspect that the odd day might have slipped by …

In fact I was quite surprised to learn, while reading through the handbook, what a bad Brownie I must have been, but perhaps not so surprised to find I still fall short on many counts. There, on pages 46-47, were a list of things the Brownies of 1976 should aspire to excel in. Drawing, dancing, singing have never been my strengths. Although, I've rarely allowed lack of ability to get in the way of enthusiasm with the latter two, at least when I'm alone in the house … Sewing I can do only after a fashion, although I can deal with darning socks and replacing buttons and so on. I still can't write neatly, but hopefully can express myself well enough. And, while I was totally disinterested in growing anything whatsoever, unless I could guarantee no encounters with worms or soil,  I now love to garden, so at least I've made some progress!

Further on, I found a sort of checklist of statements about Brownies and was somewhat comforted to find I scored a bit higher on those. "Brownies are wide awake",  "Brownies keep fit", "Brownies Do Their Best", "Brownies Make Things", "Brownies Are Friendly", "Brownies Lend A Hand" could all now be given a big tick. 

And I still credit my borderline obsessive health and safety precautions (making sure saucepan handles do not stick out from the hob, making sure someone is steadying the bottom of a ladder before I or anyone else climbs it and so on) with my time spent earning my "Safety in the Home" badge. Of course, I still have accidents, but at least I know how I could have prevented them …

Some of the names of the badges sound rather archaic today. House Orderly, Jester, Thrift and Agility, for example. But they taught important things. And I enjoyed learning them too. I learned how to make a simple hand puppet, how to clean dirty brass, to cook basic foods, to write invitations and thank you letters and to recite the phone number of my family doctor. Snappy phrases ruled the day and we were encouraged to be Good Cleaner-Uppers and Willing Workers, in neither of which, I suspect, I showed particular skill or enthusiasm!

Much of what we learned had origins in the early days of the guiding movement. But would prove every bit as useful today as they ever did. For one badge, I remember having to show that I could make a call from a phone box (granted you need a credit card for that these days), that I knew the locations of the nearest phone boxes to our Brownie HQ (the local church hall) and my own home. That I could write down and repeat a message accurately, that I could shop reliably (see, I told you it stood you in good stead!) and pass a memory test.

And how many people who weren't in the Brownies (or the Guides, Cubs and Scouts) know the words to the last verse of our National Anthem? Granted it doesn't come up very often, but remember a few years ago when our athletes were being caught out by a second refrain at their medal ceremonies? That would never have happened to former Brownies! How many non-Brownies know the dates of the British patron saints' days? Or the reason that the Union Flag looks the way it does? Or even that it is called the Union Flag and not a Jack, unless it's being flown on a ship.

I was quite amused by one section of the handbook. It was clearly not one to which I had needed to pay much attention. It suggested that for one challenge it would be appropriate to take care of a baby "in a hospital, or home, for a short time by maker her some clothes." But that a doll would be acceptable if "nobody will lend you a baby." Hmm, and why wouldn't they do that? What mother isn't keen to have some eight-year-old borrow her baby to measure and sew and stick pins in? And no, I don't know why only female babies needed to be the target.

A lot of the songs and games we played would probably sound a bit uncool to our present generation of Brownies. One, sadly I can't remember either the name or the lyrics, involved us all walking around in a circle hooked together pretending to be elephants and ended in us all falling on the floor in a big heap. But let's face it, modern Brownies would probably be prevented from such revels by modern health and safety concerns. And I remember one, now horribly non-PC song called "Redmen" with lyrics that I have to admit I needed to Google, but which went something like: "Redmen, we are the Redmen. Tall and quaint in our feathers and war paint, Pow wow, Pow wow. We're the men of the Old Dun Cow, All of us are Redmen, feathers in our head men, down among the dead men, Pow-wow, Pow-wow. We can fight with sticks and stones, bows and arrows, bricks and bones. We come home from long fought wars greeted by our long-noses squaws Pow-wow, Pow-wow" There were a series of hand gestures to accompany it too! And while it would certainly fall short of cultural sensitivity, it was all meant in fun. We were children, fairly harmless ones at that. I mean, we used to gather around a giant plastic toadstool at the end of each meeting!

Being in Brownies was one of the greatest influences of my life. I learned about comradeship, about rank, about earning respect, about being independent and working as a team. It taught me a sense of tradition, a sense of self-worth and a sense of achievement. It might all be a very long time ago, but my Brownie days still marks one of my proudest ever moments. When I was almost ten years old, I was asked to recite the Brownie Guide Prayer at the City's annual Thinking Day service at Derby Cathedral. Remarkably, given that I now quake at the very thought of even making an announcement in public, I wasn't nervous at all, indeed I was probably a bit cocky about it. I had to go to the Cathedral to practise and was dismayed to learn that the clergyman in charge of the practice thought my Derby accent too "common" and insisted on coaching it out of me. I practised elongating my vowels until he was satisfied but on the day, decided to ignore his advice and did it entirely my way. Full on proper Derby accent and all. I think I reasoned, even then, that God was more interested in what I was saying, not the accent I was saying it in! Besides which, there in my Brownie Guide Handbook are the lines I'd drawn under certain words to ensure I emphasised them properly. A few simple scribbles, but containing so many memories … I hope little girls of today are still making their own. And I bet they are.